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Feminism or feminists are 'un-African', and instead argue for why feminism has a necessary role to play on the Africancontinent today. The claim or argument that 'feminism is not African' is certainly notnew. It is a claim to which I have been explicitly or implicitly subjected by other Africansas I have come to consciousness as a feminist, while still assuming, naturally, that I canstill identify as an African. One of the speakers at a recent talk I attended recounted howa student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) described her understanding offeminism as a weed that has infiltrated Africa; the implication being that it is nonindigenousand that it threatens to choke or overrun 'true' African values. Clearly, the
argument that feminism is not African is used to dismiss it and to equate its theoretical
and political development in Africa with colonialism or imperialism. It says that those
who declare themselves to be feminist in Africa are not really African or are suffering
from mental colonisation, upholding views which do not belong on African soil and
which have no worth for African cultures or peoples, women or men.
As I understand it, the argument that something or someone is or is not African, what I
call the 'discourse of African authenticity' following Maria Baaz,1 is based either on an
essentialist or a socio-historical claim about Africa. It refers, in other words, either to an
African essence or to African traditions and cultures, and thus to the various cultural
practices that have historically prevailed on the continent. In this short piece, I want to
problematise such claims as they relate to feminism in Africa, asking: What does it mean
to say that something is or is not African? What counts as evidence of this African
identity or authenticity? And finally, even if we accept the notion of some African
authenticity, what happens if something is revealed to be inauthentic? Does this mean it
can have no place or value here in Africa? After considering these questions, I will then
offer my understanding of feminism, so that we can begin to consider the ways in which
it can be beneficial to us in Africa to embrace feminist politics.
The notion that something is or is not 'African' is essentialist if it rests on the premise
that there is an inherently unique place called Africa. It is essentialist if it implies some
sort of intrinsic and therefore unchanging African nature or spirit which characterises or
indeed defines all things African. The anti-essentialist critique of such notions is not new
and so I will not dwell on it too long here; it has been clearly articulated by scholars such
as Kwame Anthony Appiah (1992) and Valentine Mudimbe (1988). They and other raise
the following points: first, Africa is above all a geographical location or space, and even
then it is contestable where its boundaries lie; second, the place we only happen to call
Africa is very large and culturally diverse, made up of very different peoples, cultures
and practices; third, the concept of a singular 'African People' or 'African 'Culture' was
first invented in the western imagination and through the colonial enterprise. As Appiah
puts it, "a specifically African identity began as the product of a European gaze"2; fourth,
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as Appiah has also argued, essentialist claims about an African spirit or identity must
ultimately refer to the biological notion that all Africans have the same blood flowing in
their veins which determines our spirit, culture and capabilities. This crude racialism has
now been debunked by modern science.
In sum, an anti-essentialist position maintains that Africa and thus African-ness or
Africanicity are historical and therefore contingent constructs. This means that we cannot
meaningfully speak of an essential Africa or of essentially African or un-African things,
in which case a consciousness and practice such as feminism cannot be dismissed as un-
African in these terms. This anti-essentialist argument does not imply that there is no
such thing as Africa. It does not deny the many shared historical, material and cultural
conditions across Africa, which are in many ways unique to the continent and which in
many ways shape our identities as African. It denies rather that these conditions are
inherent, natural or fixed.
Culture, Tradition and History
The claim that feminism is 'un-African' may also refer to 'tradition' and 'culture'.
Indeed, I understand this as the most common meaning intended by the claim when it is
popularly deployed, that is 'feminism is not part of African culture'. The argument is that
feminism has no cultural roots in Africa, and therefore no place here today. Yet the
primary weakness with such an argument, which many have noted, is that it reifies our
African cultures and traditions. I mean by this that the argument takes cultures and
traditions as given, as they appear, and as absolute. This ignores the crucial fact that all
cultures and traditions come from somewhere, that they are always the products of
history, and thus always products of, and always subject to, change and contestation. The
argument about culture overlooks the fact that the dominant shape or meaning of any
given culture is inextricably linked to power and inequality within the society or cultural
tradition in question.
I would argue that if most African cultures have traditionally or historically been
patriarchal, and even if most remain so today, this is by no means proof that there have
been no indigenous feminisms to match- feminism defined broadly for now as women's
resistance to patriarchy. If our societies are predominantly patriarchal, this is evidence
only that patriarchy, and not resistance to it, has been hegemonic. This is not, in any case,
proof that patriarchy is right or better. To really prove that feminism is not African
culturally or traditionally speaking, detailed historical and anthropological evidence must
be marshaled as proof that it has had no precedents or place in our diverse cultures. And
to do so, we must look specifically for feminism and not just at patriarchy, all the more
so as the two arguably tend to co-exist, if unevenly, in contestation and in different
spaces. Clearly, such detailed research does not inform political or popular rhetoric in
which the claim that feminism is un-African most typically surfaces. Instead 'culture' is
simply invoked in such arguments, for which the proof is none other than the manifest
form of the culture in question.
I hesitate to use the term feminism in reference to our cultural heritages in Africa for
reasons which point me to a further weakness with the argument that feminism is
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culturally or traditionally un-African. Feminism is a relatively modern term, coined in the
late 19th century in Europe. It is therefore anachronistic to speak of it other than in our
relatively recent history in Africa, as elsewhere. Also, when feminism or feminists are
dismissed by critics in Africa, I believe it is often with reference to specific stereotypes of
feminists, namely of women in Europe or North America burning their bras, or of angry
women who are man-haters. Such images are unlikely to be found, obviously, if one sets
out to look for them in traditional practices in Africa-though there are in fact traditions
of women tearing off their clothes as a sign of protest, amongst women in Eastern Nigeria
I think then that it is futile to argue over whether our ancestors were 'feminist' or not, if
feminism is narrowly defined in terms of what a few women in other parts of the world
did at a certain moment in their own history. It is obscuring the point to argue over
whether our ancestors were feminist or not in the precise manner of contemporary
African feminists. Obviously they were not. They could not have been, quite simply
because they lived under very different cultural, material, political and ideological
conditions, and because they had different means at their disposal and different ends in
mind. Frankly, there is no reason why we should expect otherwise.
To explore the historical roots of contemporary feminist praxis in Africa, it is more
appropriate to ask not if the exact same practices existed in the past, but if, how and why
African women historically resisted the conditions that oppressed them as women. If we
ask this more nuanced question, it seems clear that women-some, if not all-must have
resisted oppressive, patriarchal institutions and customs as and when necessary. Bisi
Adeleye-Fayemi, in an article on feminism in Africa, clearly states the logic of my
argument, and extends it even further. She argues that because Africa has some of the
oldest civilisations in the world, it has the oldest patriarchies, and therefore the oldest
traditions of resistance to patriarchy. To believe otherwise is, she states, to falsely imply
"that for centuries African women have crossed their arms and accepted being battered
and depersonalised by patriarchy."3 This is the direct implication of the argument that
feminism is un-African because it is not part of our culture. It implies, as Amina Mama
vividly describes it, that "the 'real' African womanâ€¦is content with her subordinate
position as wife, mother and beast of burden. She is passive in the face of abuse, tolerant
of all forms of infidelity; her only real ambition is to retain respectability by labouring for
the maintenance of a stable marriage and family and seeing to the satisfaction of her
I consider such an image of the 'authentic' African woman to be not only irrational
(contrary to reason), but also counter-intuitive (contrary to my insight as a woman), and
insulting. Scholarly evidence and even popular wisdom, I would conjecture, exist to
support my position. Existing studies have tended to focus on and even mythologise
'great women' in pre-colonial Africa-queens, warriors, traders and the like.5 It could be
argued that such women were remembered or noteworthy because they were exceptions
to the general rule of women as subordinates. However, Desirée Lewis points out the
difficulty in sourcing detailed empirical evidence on these and other women.6 Other
scholars have gone further to argue that colonialism either introduced gender inequalities
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into Africa in the first place7 or exacerbated them.8 In this case, a return to pre-colonial
traditions would actually imply a return to a more equitable state of gender relations than
presently prevails, in keeping with current feminist ideals.
Scholars studying the colonial period in Africa have traced the presence of what we could
call an indigenous feminist consciousness in various women's movements across the
continent. They have also argued that women's feminist consciousness grew out of their
resistance to colonialism and their participation in nationalist struggles, and that women
often used pre-colonial forms and strategies of organising.9 Nina Mba's pathbreaking
book of 1982, Nigerian Women Mobilized, traces the activism and political engagement
of women in Nigeria well before the modern wave of feminism in the West. Speaking of
the 1929 women's uprising in Eastern Nigeria, she states that: "the women's war was
very much a feminist movement in the sense that the women were very conscious of the
special role of women, the importance of women to society and the assertion of their
rights as women vis-à-vis the men."10
Also, as Amina Mama notes, as early as the 1920s a relatively radical group of women in
Egypt were meeting, acting and naming themselves as feminist.11 Still in Egypt, Margot
Bardran argues that feminism did not come from the West as is frequently charged, but
arose, rather, out of women's "dissatisfaction with their own lives.. [and was] motivated
and directed by women's own social, psychological, economic and political needs."12 She
goes on to name a number of Egyptian women who displayed a feminist consciousness as
early as the mid-19th century, the most famous of whom was Huda Sha'rawi. Other
examples of individual African women who espoused feminist values, explicitly or
implicitly include: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in 1940s Nigeria, Margaret Ekpo also of
Nigeria, Constance Cummings-John in Sierra Leone, and so on.
Again, the relative paucity of these examples of politically active African women who
organised as and for women may be taken as proof that they were the exception rather
than the rule. I would argue, rather, that these few examples of early women's
consciousness and organising in Africa stand as evidence of the work that remains to be
done to more fully unearth the histories or precursors of what we now call feminism on
this continent. The fact is that the histories of Africa which we most commonly know are
the histories of and by men; our historical records are not complete until the voices of
ordinary women (and other marginalised groups) are included.
Shifting the discursive terrain
I have now attempted to highlight some of the errors I see in the popular claim, often too
easily made, that feminism is not African essentially, culturally or historically speaking.
But despite my efforts thus far, I must confess a certain impatience with the very terms of
the discourse, with the apparent need to defend feminism in Africa in terms of its
authenticity. Therefore I want to shift the discussion to consider what happens or what it
means if feminism is not actually African in any sense? I want to ask: Why would we
need to resort to essentialist, cultural or historical claims or counter-claims to justify
feminist politics in Africa in the first place? Is it not possible that as Africans, women and
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men, we could choose to define ourselves as feminist, having made the critical
assessment that feminism is in fact relevant and valuable for us, whatever its origins?
Such questions relate to the politics of labeling something or someone as African or un-
African. As seen, within the discourse of African authenticity, the label 'African'
signifies that which is legitimate in and for Africa, whereas 'un-African' signifies the
illegitimate. This functions to not only distinguish Africa from the Western world, but to
also validate Africa in opposition to the latter. The ostensible purpose of the discourse is
to set Africa apart from her former colonial masters and to reclaim the value of our
indigenous, African cultures. The discourse of African authenticity functions to reject the
racism and ethnocentrism with which Africa and the African are still often are judged by
Let me state categorically that I take it to be necessary to promote and celebrate our
continent and our customs in a world that would otherwise devalue all things African. I
believe that it is necessary for us to construct a pan-African identity, and to build a shared
African sensibility and unity. It is important that that we reassert the worth of our many
cultures, and that we protect and retain those cultural elements that are most sacred to us.
Yet it seems to me imperative that if we Africans embark upon such work, we do so in
intelligent and critical ways and for ends which are not merely reactionary to the West
and ultimately retrogressive. As Ayesha Imam puts it: "in revolting against western
ethnocentric false universalisations, we should be careful not to enshrine equally false
essentialisations of Africanicity, which disenfranchise us from examining certain aspects
of oppressive relations."13 However, this is precisely what the discourse of African
authenticity and tradition currently does. The fact is that it functions to promote
conservative and oppressive political agendas: for instance in Zimbabwe and Nigeria to
condemn homosexuality and to deny homosexuals their human and civil rights;14 to
support practices such as genital mutilation, polygamy, domestic abuse and virginitytesting
from which women suffer, and so on.
Imam's point is that we should not uncritically celebrate and cling to some notion of
'African Tradition' just because our various traditions face constant assault and
denigration by outsiders. Not only must we deconstruct facile and oppressive rhetoric of
African 'culture' and 'tradition' as and when it appears, but we must allow and even
desire the possibility that our cultures change, as necessary, and in order to retain their
vitality. This does not mean that we adopt seemingly new or external practices wholesale,
without any reflection. It does mean, however, that we do not dismiss them for these
reasons only, but rather critically engage with them on their own merits (and demerits).
There is, in other words, a need to move beyond the discourse of African authenticity and
inauthenticity, to radically shift the terms of the debate. What should be of concern to us
as Africans is less the origins of a theory or practice, but its potential relevance and
benefit to us.
Feminism in Africa: What benefit?
In this spirit, I want to conclude this piece by offering a tentative understanding of
feminism and by suggesting some of the potential contributions it can make in Africa.
postamble 3 (1) 2007
First I want to draw a distinction between feminism in the singular, which I define
broadly as the political consciousness, commitment and praxis to redress women's
structural disadvantage in patriarchal societies, and feminisms, understood as the various
doctrines and means to this end. I want to consider a specific form of feminism here,
relevant to the African condition, what I call 'radical African feminism'.
As I imagine it, this feminism is one which pursues truly substantive equality between
men and women in Africa where gender inequality presently reigns. If so, this feminism
is not just for women. Its purpose is not to replace men with women, nor even to merely
include more women in men's worlds. Its purpose, rather, is to transform the very
structures of our societies which produce and perpetuate gender inequalities in the first
place. Feminists may seek to enact this transformation primarily by focusing on women's
situations and by advocating on their behalf but this does not mean it is only about
women or, indeed, only about women and men. Rather, it is concerned with radically
reimagining and reshaping all power relations, in which case it concerns human relations
in general. It advocates mutuality and respect in the place of hierarchy, abuse, oppression
and exploitation. It strives for peace, justice and freedoms. It is for these reasons opposed
to neo-liberalism and corruption, imperialism and racism, war and violence.
The potential of such feminist politics in Africa is clear, given the degree to which
inequality and injustice characterise our contemporary societies. In Africa, feminist politics
cannot be separated from the problems of poverty, disease, under-education, militarism,
violence and conflict. These must necessarily be the concerns of radical feminists
committed to Africa, for they overdetermine the lives and conditions of most women on
this continent, indeed men too. Radical African feminism also cannot ignore the linkages
between the local, the national and the global such as the unfair terms in which Africa is
locked into the global capitalist order, which exacerbate poverty and underdevelopment on
the continent. Radical feminists are therefore committed to resist this order, and to critique
and fashion alternatives to development paradigms handed down to us from the West, those
especially that co-opt the language of 'gender' for conservative, patriarchal ends. Thus in
Africa and indeed other post-colonial contexts, a committed feminism is inextricably
linked with anti-imperialist, anti-elitist and anti-racist politics.15 Amina Mama states that
"it presents a praxis that directly opposes the hegemonic interests of multinational
corporations, international financial and development agencies and nation-states."16
The feminism I imagine here is African insofar as it is fully grounded in and informed by
our various local realities, and insofar as it is committed to their amelioration. It is in this
sense that we can speak meaningfully of an African feminism-African because in, of
and for our continent and its peoples. It is radical as it seeks to transform society in its
totality, for the betterment of all, not just women or even a certain type or group of
women. The sketch I have given here is optimistic but not, I believe, unduly so. If
feminists are truly committed to equality, democracy and social justice, then they must be
self-reflexive, open to a constant re-envisioning and re-imagining of their assumptions,
means and ends. If first inspired and informed by a deep concern with women's
oppression, they therefore do not seek to reproduce any other forms oppression between
other social groups. 17
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I offer this vision of a feminism for Africa only tentatively here because it clearly needs to
be further developed and concretised; the practicalities of how such a feminist praxis can be
made real and effective, to bridge the gap between theory and practice, is a work in
progress, in which many contemporary African feminists are engaged. I would argue that
they need the support and constructive input from others Africans. In a sense this has
been my ultimate purpose in this essay: to offer a characterisation of feminism up for
consideration, and to propose that we begin to discuss and debate feminism on its own
merits and on its own terms, rather than continue to focus on where it came from. Let us
no longer seek to legitimate or delegitimate feminism in Africa in terms of its origins.
Instead, a more worthwhile and productive focus for our energies would be a critical
discussion on what feminism is, can and should be for us, women and men, in Africa today.
1 Maria Eriksson Baaz. 'Introduction: African Identity and the Postcolonial.' In Same and Other:
Negotiating African Identity in Cultural Production. Ed. M.E. Baaz and M. Palmberg. (Nordiska
Afrikainsitutet, 2001), p. 8.
2 Anthony Kwame Appiah. In my Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. (New York/Oxford:
Oxford University Press. 1992), p. 71.
3 Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi. 'Creating and Sustaining Feminist Space in Africa: Local and Global Challenges in
the 21st Century' in Feminist Politics, Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges. Ed. L.
Ricciutelli, A. Miles and M. McFadden. (London/New York: Zed Books, 2005), p. 88.
4 Mama, Amina. 'Women' Studies and Studies of Women in Africa during the 1990s.' 1995. Available at
<http://www.gwsafrica.org/knowledge/index.html> , Cited September 2006.
5 For example Desirée Lewis 'African Feminist Studies: 1980-2002: A Review Essay for the African
Gender Institute's 'Strengthening Gender and Women's Studies for Africa's Social Transformation'
Project.' 2002. Available at <http://www.gwsafrica.org/knowledge/index.html> Cited September 2006.
7 For example Ronke Oyewunmi. The Invention of Woman: Making African Sense of Western Gender
Discourses. (Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press), 1997.
8 For example, Nina Mba. Nigerian Women Mobilized. (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies,
University of California Berkeley), 1982.
9 For example Desirée Lewis, op. cit.; Nina Mba, op. cit. etc
10 Mba, op. cit., p. 91
11 Mama, op. cit., p 3.
12 Margot Badran. Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and Making of Modern Egypt. (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1998).
13 Ayesha Imam. 'Engendering African Social Sciences: An Introductory Essay' in Engendering African
Social Sciences. Eds. A. Imam, A.Mama and F. Sow. (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1997), p. 17.
14 For instance, Marc Epprecht. 'The 'Unsaying' of Indigenous Homosexualities in Zimbabwe; Mapping a
Blindspot in an African Masculinity.' Journal of Southern African Studies 24.4 1998; Jessica Horn. 'Re-
Righting the Sexual Body. Feminist Africa 6. 2006.
15 Sylvia Tamale. 'Alternative Leadership in Africa: Some Critical Feminist Reflections.' Feminist Politics,
Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges. Ed. L. Ricciutelli, A. Miles and M. McFadden.
(London/New York: Zed Books, 2005
16 Amina, Mama. 'Editorial.' Feminist Africa 1. 2002, p. 1.
17 Shamillah Wilson. 'Feminist leadership for feminist futuresâ€¦' In Defending our Dreams: Global
Feminist Voices for a New Generation. Eds. Wilson, S., Sengupta, A. and Evans, K. (London/New York:
Zed Books), 2005.